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A Diverse Community is Given the Runway to Explore a Burgeoning Sport

May 6, 2019
In Springdale, Arkansas, a local community center decided to ‘go big’ on construction of a new bike park

“We have a counter on the gate for the pump track,” says Ed Clifford, CEO of The Jones Center in Springdale, Arkansas. “Last Tuesday, we had 3,400 clicks of folks entering to use the park.”

For the Runway Bike Park, which opened at the center in the fall of 2018, these numbers provide tangible evidence of a community eager to learn and continue growing a sport exploding in popularity across Northwest Arkansas.

With support from the Walton Family Foundation, which encouraged planners to “think big” on the project’s potential, the center built 2.75 acres of state-of-the-art skills training, bicycle playgrounds and the largest asphalt pump track in North America.

The Jones Center is a hub of recreation and education in Springdale and the surrounding area, which is home to a diverse blend of Marshallese, Hmong and Latinx communities. But the 220,000-square-foot facility, which offers after-school programs, swimming pools, tracks, ice rinks, fitness classes and more lacked formal outdoor recreational activities.

The center partnered with Ozark Off-Road Cyclists to create a next-level skills park to help aspiring riders of all ages and socio-economic levels learn the sport at an accessible, year-round and world-class training facility. As lead consultants on the project, Ozark Off-Road Cyclists set out to realize a sustainable and low-maintenance facility that would make sense for the space and community.

The park was completed with the help of Velosolutions, a global leader in track and park design. Its focus? Progression. For many of the kids who show up, it is their first time on a bike, and so the team “built a place where—even if they didn’t have access to anything else—they have everything they need right there to learn this skill and become world-class athletes, or simply better riders,” says Brannon Pack, executive director of Ozark Off-Road Cyclists.

Family-friendly and open to all skill levels, the bicycle playground ensures that for the littlest riders, their first time will be fun. Connected to the park but separate enough to keep them safe, the playground is filled with bright colors, tunnels and mini-bumps perfect for strider bikes.

For additional skill development, there are three asphalt skill lines, with 30 cedar and steel features. Drawing on the park’s proximity to a local airfield, riders finish each course through a decommissioned military helicopter as small aircraft land overhead.

At the center of the park lies the pump track, an undulating valley of asphalt that caters to every type of rider—from mountain bikers to skateboarders. “You’re not pedaling. You’re pumping your bike through the rolling hills and berms,” says my colleague Gary Vernon, a fellow foundation program officer, who focuses on cycling projects.

“It’s like a perpetual motion machine. You do one lap, and it feels like you’re cranking up a massive hill. It’s a total body workout.”

At a recent conference hosted at the Jones Center, participants grabbed bikeshare bikes on their lunch break and took turns riding through the pump track. The looks of pure joy – and exhaustion – from just a couple laps were enough to entice everyone else to clamor for a turn.

The Velosolutions-designed track is considered to be one of the finest and largest in the world, one of the reasons that in the fall of 2018, Red Bull chose the site to host its inaugural Pump Track World Championships. The race also marked the official opening of the park to the public, an opening unlike anything this community had ever seen.

The event brought in young racers from around the world, male and female professional athletes who looked like the surrounding community, from Asia and Europe to South America and Africa.

The completed park, which has increased access to the sport for local immigrant communities, is now changing the future face of cycling to make it more representative of the rich diversity in the region.

“One of the things it has done is expose many in Springdale to mountain biking when they might never have been exposed to it before," says Ed.

“It has been great to see new groups of kids, particularly our Latinx youth, out there utilizing the skill lines and going along the pump track, just finding out what the sport is all about.”

Gary rides at the park with his own kids and has found the pump track to be a great equalizer for riders. “Unlike the expensive suspension, components and other features that really make a difference going down a mountain trail, on an asphalt pump track, you can have a basic, inexpensive bike, and you are just as competitive, it’s just as fun. It really levels the playing field for those learning the sport.”

So far, the center has put together impressive offerings, including free bikes and helmets available for check-out. Youth programs ranging from toddlers to serious riders are offered after school and on weekends.

"We’ve been able to expose the diversity of our community and beyond to mountain biking,” says Ed, who has met folks coming through the gates from as far as Wisconsin, Texas and Tennessee to experience the new track.

As Northwest Arkansas becomes a growing global destination for cycling, Runway Bike Park has become of the region’s proudest achievements for a burgeoning scene.

But beyond the crowds, expert-level tricks and winner’s podiums, the park is generating steady, positive momentum for its community.

“No matter what kind of rider you are, whether you’re 3 or 70, everyone’s having a great time on it,” says Gary.

“The mission was to get the community active, and when you see a herd of kids out there after school every day not on their phone or home playing video games, that’s a big win.”

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